the origin of scientific thinking

Glenn R. Morton (
Sun, 16 May 1999 08:52:45 -0500

I am reading a fascinating book entitled The Lost Civilizations of the
Stone Age by Richard Rudgley. With a title like this one would expect
discussions of Atlantis, Mu and alien space craft. But it isn't like
that at all. I learned of this book in a review in Nature last fall and
finally got it for my birthday. It is a serious work written by an
anthropologist who is at Oxford. Rudgley won the British Museum Award
for his last book.
The chapter I am going discuss concerns the origin of scientific
thinking. By scientific thinking one means the proposing of hypotheses,
the gathering of data, the comparing of the data to various hypotheses
with the resultant rejection of hypotheses failing to match the data and
the modification of hypothese to fit the data. Amazingly, this type of
thinking has been on earth for a very, very long time.
This type of thinking is precisely what a hunter engages in. So we can
look to the fossil record for the earliest example of actual hunting and
know that they were thinking in a scientific vein. The earliest proof
of hunting occurs 400,000 years ago. At Schoningen Germany, wooden
spears were found which were balanced the same as an olympic javelin.
The spear was designed to be thrown which means the men were
hunting.[Robin Dennell, "The World's Oldest Spears," Nature 385(Feb. 27,
1997), p. 767;Hartmut Thieme, "Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears form
Germany," Nature, 385(Feb. 27,1997), p. 810]

How do we know the type of thinking that went into hunting? Because of
the nature of animal tracking. Man the hunter must first be man the
tracker. In order to get close enough to throw a spear he must find the
quarry. To do so requires the postulating hypotheses and the comparison
of them with new data and then the modification of the theory. For
instance a tracker may look at the foot prints and postulate that the
animal went to the east. This is because of the direction of the feet.
He can look at the damp urine patch and know the sex of the animal and
if the animal passed by several hours ago or very recently. How can
youknow the sex? In most quadrupeds if the urine patch is between the
fore and hind footprints, it is a male, if behind all feet, then it is a
female. The tracker must examine broken twigs to see if the breaks are
fresh or old. Spit on the leaves means that the animals was passing
through within the past 30 minutes or so since otherwise the spit would
be dry. Feces tell the age of the animal, and also how recently it
passed. Warm feces indicate a few minutes have elapsed and the quarry
is near.

As new data comes in, the hunter must make changes to his mental map of
where the game is. Jones and Konner who studied the hunting techniques
of the San !Kung wrote:

"Such an intellective process is familiar to us from detective stories
and indeed also from science itself. Evidently it is a basic feature of
human mental life. It would be surprising indeed if repeated activation
of hypotheses, trying them out against new data, integrating them with
previously known facts, and rejecting ones which do not stand up, were
habits of mind peculiar to western scientists and detectives. !Kung
behavior indicates that, on the contrary, the very way of life for which
the human brain evolved required them. That they are brought to
impressive fruition by the technology of scientists and the leisure of
novelists should not be allowed to persuade us that we invented them.
Man is the only hunting mammal with so rudimentary a sense of smell that
he could only have come to successful hunting through intellectual
evolution." Cited by Rudgley p. 112

And the errors in logic they made ore the same as the ones we make. They
further state:

"The accuracy of observation, the patience, and the experiences of
wildlife they have had and appreciate are enviable. The sheer, elegant
logic of deductions from tracks would satiate the msot avid crossword
fan or reader of detective stories. THe objectivity is also enviable to
scientists who beleive that they can identify it and that the progress
of science is totally dependent upon it. Even the poor theorisation of
our !Kung left one uneasy; their 'errors,' the errors of 'Stone Age
savages,' are exactly those still made today by many highly educated
western scientists.. We have gained little or nothing in ability or
intellectual brilliance scince the Stone Age; our gains have all been in
the accumulation of records of our intellectual acheivements. We climb
on each other's backs; we know more and understand more, but our
intellects are no better." Cited by Rudgley p. 115.


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